“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight, but no vision”.
“Vision”. “Visionary”. These words concur up images of legendary leaders like Martin Luther King delivering his “I have a dream” speech. Or maybe you see technology guru’s like Steve Jobs in the early days of Apple. Or the Wright brothers’ first flight. Very seldom do we see ourselves as visionaries or do we aspire to be more visionary. We see Vision as that strange and elusive talent that’s only available to a select few of those weird or unusually brilliant people. Not true. I’d like to make the case that being more visionary is not only attainable but essential in today’s workplace.
I believe that part of the reason why it is such a rare and under-appreciated skill is because it has been over glamorized in our society. Every time it is mentioned, it is painted in an extreme setting or case like I did above. And so, we have become conditioned to think that it is something only the greats are able to accomplish and should aspire to. This is so unfortunate. Vision is a huge career and life accelerator that is not only attainable to anyone but returns incredible dividends on the time invested in it. Let’s explore.
Vision: What is it?
If it’s not some mystic, spiritual, extreme talent thing, then what exactly is Vision? Quite simply, vision is the ability to picture a future outcome. It is the ability to predict, forecast (or guess) where you want to be or will be at a point beyond today. Not so mystical when you put it that way, is it? Not easy, I grant you that, but not mystical at all. It’s a skill that can be learned. If you make it a priority.
There are two types of vision that I’d like to discuss in this article. Although they are similar, they have important differences.
Why does it matter?
American systems scientist and senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Peter Senge said this: “It’s not what the vision is, it’s what the vision does.” That is so powerful and so true. The vision itself doesn’t matter near as much as what it does for you.
Why is it so uncommon?
So if having a clear vision is so critical, why isn’t it much more of a common practice? I believe there are two main fears that hold people back from accepting and applying vision in their lives and careers.
Fear #1: What if I’m wrong? What if I envision the path, choose a direction and it turns out to be wrong! It turns out that it’s not the path that gets me what I’m trying to accomplish? Now I’ve wasted all this time and I have to start over from the beginning. Not to mention the embarrassment!
Solution: Measure early, measure often and pivot soon. Especially with predictive vision, if you regularly revisit and re-evaluate your long-term prediction based on new-found data, you will be able to tell early if you either predicted wrong, or the market has shifted and it’s time to set a new vision.
Fear #2: FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out. I’m too afraid to narrow my options. By picking a direction, you are inherently NOT picking another direction. In fact, you are NOT picking a lot of other directions. This scares many people. So instead of setting clear, specific goals and vision, we create these really wide, almost-can’t-miss objectives. It is human nature to want to hedge our bets. I’m not a gambler, but that’s why in Roulette betting on one single number pays out so much more than betting on the numbers of a specific color. Betting on a single number has a probability of success of roughly 2.7% where betting on a color has a probability of success of roughly 47%. Why? Because you have 18 possibilities to win vs just one. And this is what we tend to do in life. We “bet on red”. We figure we have a much better chance of hitting our goals if we set our goals wide than to narrow them to a single vision. And that is partly true. You have a better chance to hit a target when the target is a mile wide than when it’s a couple of inches wide. The flip side is that it’s also not that much of an accomplishment. So you hit the mile-wide target. So what? Almost anybody can do that. Including your competition. But hitting that very specific vision or target, now that’s an accomplishment that not many people can compete with. And the payoff will be huge!
I am a very firm believer in “high risk equals high reward”. From personal experience, moving from Africa to America was one of the riskiest moves I’ve ever made in my life. (And believe me, I’ve done some risky things!) However, I can truly say that it has also been one of the most rewarding. Looking back now, the life I have built here is one that I could only have dreamt about if I had continued on my safe journey back in my Motherland.
In the world of Roulette, the same is true. “Betting on red” pays out 1:1. Betting on a single number pays out 35:1. High risk, high reward. True in life, true in Roulette.
Here’s the second problem with “hedging your bets”. In my article on focus: Focus: Accomplish more by doing less I discuss the myths of multitasking. We think that by doing many things simultaneously we are more productive and that we get more done, when in fact the opposite is true. We actually accomplish less. The way to get more accomplished is to do one thing, do it well and complete it before going on to the next. And herein lies the problem of having broad, sweeping visions. We end up having to accomplish many things at once, in the hope that one of them would hit. One of them would be successful. And we end up doing none of them well enough to be worth giving us the competitive edge we seek. We spread our resources so thin that we do a superficial job at most things, and at the end of the day, even if one of our “picks” is a winner, it is not enough to really stand out from the crowd.
Solution: Assess the value of each option and the opportunity cost of not chasing the peripheral opportunities. Run “what-if” and “risk-reward” scenarios on the various options that compete with your central vision. In other words, play out your hopes and fears to determine the best case and worst-case scenarios. Doing this will provide you with extra data that allows you to narrow your vision and focus and increase your chances of success.
We’ve covered some solid ground here today. I hope I’ve demystified the visionary experience at least somewhat and have given you at least an interest in the topic. I also hope that I have made the case for how important it is as a life skill. We’ve covered how to overcome some of the fears relating to setting and executing on a singular vision and in part 2 of this article I will share some practical tips for how to start cultivating this critical life skill. Since we now agree that it is an attainable skill, how do I learn to be more visionary? Check out part two. As always, comments and feedback are welcome.